Bringing Sustainability and Urbanism Together
Real and Perceived Conflicts
Urbanism and sustainability do not always fit together neatly or easily. There are often conflicts between the two standards, yet the needs of both design philosophies need to be recognized and adjustments made.
One conflict between sustainable development and urban design arises at the location or site level. Urban-infill and urbanized greenfield projects sometimes impact natural resource systems, or their footprint violates a law designed to protect these systems. Resolution of these conflicts is often difficult, because the issues are complex and the public forums regarding the land-use decisions rarely present an opportunity for informed discussion or balancing competing social interests.
At issue may be whether a particular wetland can be filled to continue street connectivity or a stream bank hardened to maintain an urban context. Sustainable development advocates often begin from the perspective that no protected resource can be touched by development or compromised in any way, whether it is a wetland, a riparian buffer along a stream, or a buffer zone around a bald eagle's nest.
Advocates of sustainable development correctly assert that developers and the communities that approve development rarely understand the natural systems in which development occurs and the consequences of interruptions in portions of those systems.
Moreover, the engineers who work on development rarely assign appropriate value (social or economical) to the natural infrastructure, so they waste money on building infrastructure for such things as storm-water management when they should instead preserve natural storm-water management systems.
Often neither the developers nor their engineers take into account some irreplaceable infrastructure such as pollinators.
Finally, few developers are willing to explore restoration as an option as they approach degraded natural infrastructure systems (e.g., wetlands, streams, and habitats) already impacted by surrounding development. When a natural system of wetlands and habitats has been degraded, the argument is often advanced that the system no longer matters.
This argument is irrational, however. If extensive leaks degraded the capacity of constructed storm-water runoff pipes, rational developers and engineers would explore the costs of restoring functionality before exploring replacement. Similarly, restoring the natural system of streams and wetlands that manage storm-water runoff and treatment may make more sense than replacing them. The possibility should at least be examined rather than simply using degradation as a justification for replacement.
Blind Spots of Sustainability Advocates
The advocates of sustainable development often have certain blind sports regarding these development conflicts as well. For example, the arguments against impacts on any thing that qualifies as protected resources are often advanced by single-purpose agencies or NIMBY (not-in-my-backyard) groups and used mindlessly in an attempt to stop projects.
The result is that a farm pond, constructed by humans and easily replaced by a human construct or by wetlands along a roadway (which may even have been created by the very construction of that roadway), are used to disrupt development plans and important connectivity. Frequently, these positions are driven by fear of legal precedent rather than a desire to create great human spaces that are appropriately sustainable.
Individuals and groups advancing resource-protection arguments under the banner of sustainability may be equally as guilty of removing humans from the context of nature as the development community. For example, in an urban redevelopment setting, as riverfront industrial land is converted to mixed-use residential and commercial space, there are often requirements to abandon development areas and to restore lost natural infrastructure of wetlands and riparian buffers.
Frequently, these requirements are blindly implemented, not allowing exception in any small area and precluding any possibility of including plazas or buildings that, in a small portion of the area, would allow people the opportunity to come to the edge of the river or lake for some portion of their day. In great European urban areas, such as London or Paris, or newer American cityscapes — such as the river walks of San Antonio, Texas, or Milwaukee, Wisconsin — it is difficult to deny humans' deep affection and desire to occupy these spaces.
Indeed, this is one of the two primary points advanced by urbanists. There is an appropriate habitat for humans, and if we want to stop the sprawl of humans across all habitats, we must build a great human habitat that attracts with its quality of life as well as with its efficient sustainable design.
The second primary point is that sustainable development decisions should be based in reason rather than dogmatism; to deliver the promised elements of urbanism, such as pedestrian movement and appropriate traffic grids, things like connectivity must not be interrupted by unnecessary protections based on dogmatic rather than reasoned positions.
In summary, some urbanists would argue that there are parts of the transect where natural systems should mostly trump human desires, but when designers reach T5 and T6 (urban zones), human habitat should prevail.
Blind Spots of Urbanism Advocates
Urbanists have their own blind spots on this issue. One oft-repeated battle cry is that Boston could not be built today with the current wetland rules. Because Boston is an undeniably excellent urban space, it must follow that a system that would preclude Boston from being rebuilt must be wrong.
Of course, logically this conclusion does not follow. If, armed with our knowledge of the value of natural infrastructure, both environmentally and fiscally, we were able to go back in time and replan the city of Boston, we might choose to fill in less of its waterfront and less of its wetlands, and cover fewer of its streams. The result could still be a great city, perhaps even a greater city.
Moreover, the very fact that the building of Boston had a huge impact on natural infrastructure makes the small amount of natural infrastructure that remains in the area of critical value. Consequently, a much better argument exists for having no further impact on the natural infrastructure in the Boston area.
The real point of the urbanist argument is, however, that if the natural infrastructure had been slavishly protected, it is unlikely that any great human habitat could have emerged. And if we now adopt this unquestioning absolute protection, we have made a decision to preclude great cities in the future.
The transect is a useful tool in navigating these shoals. It provides a means of weighting the decisions by identifying the areas where certain qualities of human-habitat construction, whether aesthetics or pedestrian or traffic movement, should have priority.
Rather than simply concluding, however, that in the T5 and T6 zones all human endeavors should prevail, John Tillman Lyle, in his book Design for Human Ecosystems, suggests a slightly different approach in which decisions are made based on "functionalities." From this viewpoint, human endeavors should prevail only when irreplaceable ecological functions are preserved and the impact on others is mitigated.
In the end, concepts such as biophilia, which suggests that the human psyche needs natural areas and biodiversity in daily life, support the suggested compromise: a cityscape should preserve and integrate more natural infrastructure but not separate human habitat so dramatically that these natural areas can only be visited as some foreign enclave within the city.
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Daniel K. Slone is a partner in the Richmond, Virginia, office of the law firm McGuireWoods LLP. As a consultant and legal counsel, he represents developers, green businesses, and municipalities around the world, advising them on neighborhood development, environmental issues, land use, utilities, and complex business and real estate matters. Slone is the national counsel for both the U.S. Green Building Council and the Congress for the New Urbanism.
Doris S. Goldstein is an attorney whose practice focuses on New Urbanist communities, beginning with Seaside, Florida, in the 1980s. In addition to her ongoing involvement with Seaside, Goldstein represents developers of mixed-use, pedestrian-friendly communities throughout the county. Her work extends past the development stage to include operational issues, giving her unique practical experience and insight.
Contributing author W. Andrew Gowder, Jr., is a litigating attorney with particular experience in urban and sustainable development.
Other contributors include experienced attorneys and planners with special insight into planning and zoning practice.
This article is excerpted from A Legal Guide to Urban and Sustainable Development for Planners, Developers, and Architects by Daniel K. Slone and Doris S. Goldstein, copyright © 2008, with permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons.